Longform

Lost Tribe

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"I would urge them to be cautious about exercising any government powers, " he adds.

Will Chavez, spokesman for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, says in the last few years, ever since Dances with Wolves made it chic to be an Indian, counterfeit Indians have been crawling out of the woodwork.

"It seems to be a fad the last three or four years of people wanting to be Indian," says Chavez. "It hampers the real tribes and their work."

John Eagle Bull agrees. An Oglala Sioux who serves as president of the board of trustees of the Dallas Inter-Tribal Center, a federally-funded health and social service agency, Bull says, "This is nonsense. There are so many groups like this ['Nato]. Being Indian is very in. People like this give Indians a bad name. It doesn't only make Indians look ridiculous, it could hurt authentic groups."

The Dallas Inter-Tribal Center, for instance, is also attempting to get land and buildings at Carswell Air Force Base. Bull explains that because of the history of federal abuse of Indian tribes and because they are one of the poorest groups in the United States, people usually want to help. "But when groups like this come along," he says, referring to 'Nato, "it muddies the waters. It makes it hard on legitimate groups."

"I don't know Clayton's motivation," Eagle Bull says. "But there are so many people out there who are lost, who want something to belong to. There are people looking to establish connections with their heritage. But a group like this, instead of providing information, they provide validation."

A characteristic of phony groups, Eagle Bull says, is that they attack Indian tribal membership, a touchy subject to Indians. "They bring up the point that it wasn't needed 100 years ago. That has an appeal because there are a lot of people out there with enrollment problems."

To further muddy the waters, the ersatz Indians, which is how he views Clayton and 'Nato, will denounce the established tribal leaders, Eagle Bull says. "They'll dismiss me as a BIA Indian, a sell out--which is the farthest thing from the truth. He'll use not being under government control as a selling point. I think this guy is using a lot of smoke and mirrors. Guys like this, they're main motivation is money, or some power trip."

Clayton, indeed, characterizes his critics as having been co-opted by the BIA. "They don't know what their rights are," he says. "These other groups have not been successful. They don't have the expertise to do economic development. They're raised BIA Indians and that's all they know. Urban Indians are more successful than counterparts on reservations, but they don't bring it back home."

Clayton denies he is motivated by self-aggrandizement. "Who would want to set up their own government? It takes time, energy, and money. I have a weak body. I put myself under a lot of stress and strain. For what? For power? There's no power. My judgeship is not about power. It's about fairness. If I'm doing something phony, felonious, to cheat people, let the law come down on me. If not, leave me alone or support me."

It wasn't until Henry and Gil Clayton were in grade school in Oak Cliff that they learned they had an Indian heritage. Their father was both ashamed and pained by the Native American's collective history and wanted his children to grow up without stigma, Henry Clayton says.

"But we both knew we were somehow different," he says. "I was a serious, silent child. I always felt very comfortable with nature. I had no fear of animals."

The boys' aunt told them about the Cherokee leaders they were related to, Clayton says, including Chief Bill Keeler, who chartered the Cherokee Nation and was appointed by the U.S. government to lead it in the 1950s and 1960s. Clayton says Keeler once visited his aunt and offered to take young Henry with him to Oklahoma, to learn about his heritage. But his father refused.

After he enlisted in the Navy, Clayton says that his innate Indian skills led to his being selected for "a special forces team" that was involved when the intelligence ship U.S.S. Pueblo was seized by the North Koreans in January 1968. "I was pulled out from time to time to work on covert activities that I can't discuss," he says.

Clayton married and had three daughters, whom he moved around the country as he went from job to job. Even after he divorced and remarried, he felt adrift, he says. It wasn't until he started tracing his Indian roots that he felt he had a purpose. The feeling was further strengthened when he realized that his people, he says, were in crisis.

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Ann Zimmerman